Arkansas Legislature

Keep the Sunshine Out?

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel: "No public information for you!"
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel: "No public information for you!"

When I first filed a bill that would make the criminal records of government officials public — at the suggestion of a professor at our local law school — I figured most people would think it’s a good idea. Maybe so, but it turned out that most state legislators thought differently.

HB 1051 would have made the criminal records of candidates, elected officials and high-ranking appointed officials accessible on demand. The argument for this is simple: public access to the criminal histories of government decision-makers is absolutely in the public interest, and the public has a right to know about the criminal past of those who are supposed to act in the interest of the public.

State government already compiles all Arkansans’ criminal history from public records. The information in Arkansas law enforcement databases is already public information, already collected by state government employees, and is already paid for by taxpayers. It’s exactly the kind of information that is supposed to be open to the public under our freedom of information laws.

The only bar to getting it is that the everyday citizen has to drive to 75 counties and visit huge numbers of courthouses and police stations in order to get criminal record information. It’s unreasonable to make citizens go to this length when state government already has a complete database of easily accessible public information.

We discussed this bill several times in the House Judiciary Committee. At our first committee meeting, legislators raised questions about how the bill would work and who would administer the background checks. In response to these concerns, I repeatedly met with and talked to professional law enforcement staff from the State Police and the Arkansas Crime Information Center, who suggested numerous modifications to the bill to make it work better. I accepted all but one of their suggestions — I didn’t take their advice on how to set prices for the background check.

One day after our last conversation, I took the bill before the Judiciary Committee again, only to be met with hostile testimony from the same law enforcement professionals who advised me before. The same law enforcement professionals who had advised me didn’t like my proposed fee.

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel also spoke against the bill; he said he thought the bill was too extensive — that letting the public do background checks on every “state legislator, Justice of the Peace and dogcatcher in Arkansas” granted too much access by too many people. We don’t actually have elections for dogcatcher in Arkansas, but it was interesting to see him say publicly what I suspect some elected officials thought privately.

I once again modified the bill: the newest draft increased the price for background checks, ensured that sealed and expunged records would not be revealed, and made a variety of technical changes to satisfy other members.

I then took it back for a third round of questioning before the Judiciary Committee, where the real motivation for the hostility towards the bill by some members was growing more evident. One of my favorite colleagues, freshman Rep. Ann Clemmer, spoke in favor of the bill at the hearing, noting that “with this much scrutiny over the bill, I’m worried that the public is going to think that we have something to hide.”

One of the attorney general’s lawyers showed up and criticized the bill, saying that it would reveal confidential information, but admitted under questioning that every bit of information covered by the bill was already public information.

The bill finally made it out of committee but didn’t fare so well on the floor. Attorney General McDaniel sent a letter to all legislators arguing that we should “protect the privacy” of criminals’ public records. That didn’t make much sense to me, but apparently it was more persuasive to others. On Friday, government secrecy won and freedom of information lost; the bill failed 33-56.

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